TAMPA, Fla. — Nick Fitzgerald stood with his hands on his hips near the midfield logo of Raymond James Stadium and stared at nothing. The Mississippi State senior quarterback’s face was blank as bodies whizzed by him, some in jubilation and some in dejection, and he processed the end of his career as a Bulldog.
An incomplete pass on fourth down in the fourth quarter was No. 18 MSU’s final missed opportunity in a 27-22 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
“We definitely beat ourselves the whole game,” MSU wide receiver Osirus Mitchell said. “They weren’t better than us. We just beat ourselves. We didn’t execute the best we could.”
No. 18 MSU (8-5) averaged 4.8 yards per pass attempt. It completed 43.75 percent of its passes and failed to earn a first down on five of its 15 possessions.
MSU also committed eight penalties, which was only slightly above its average of 6.3, but each one proved costly. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the targeting call that ejected cornerback Maurice Smitherman early in the second quarter granted Iowa a chance at a field goal to open its scoring. Two holding calls in the second quarter took away a potential field goal opportunity and later a red-zone chance in the final minute.
“More than anything, the cumulative effect. It’s not just the negative yards, but the yards from what the result of the play was, and a lot of those were positive,” Moorhead said.
Turnovers also proved to be part of MSU’s undoing. Fitzgerald threw an interception on a busted screen play on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. His second interception came after Stephen Guidry couldn’t catch a first-down pass that would have helped MSU take the lead in the fourth quarter. Instead, Jake Gervase’s interception ended the threat.
On defense, MSU surrendered a 75-yard touchdown on a pass from Nate Stanley to Nick Easley on a miscommunication.
“Disappointment because I know we’re a way better team than that, especially on defense,” said MSU senior safety Johnathan Abram, who appeared to bite on a play-action fake by Stanley and didn’t have any deep support from a safety. “It was out of character. That should never happen.”
Iowa, which earned its first victory against a ranked opponent this season, scored 17 points off three MSU turnovers. The Bulldogs outgained the Hawkeyes 342-199, but Stanley was 21-for-31 for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
Iowa’s defense set up a go-ahead touchdown when junior Anthony Nelson tipped a Fitzgerald screen pass attempt at the line of scrimmage and junior Chauncey Golston made the interception to give Iowa possession at the MSU 20. Stanley capped a six-play drive when he connected with Easley, the game’s MVP, on an 8-yard touchdown pass — his second of the game — to give the Hawkeyes a 24-19 lead.
Iowa then held on even though MSU had its chances. On MSU’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Fitzgerald hit Guidry on a 51-yard reception, but he was tripped up at the 1 on a tackle by sophomore Matt Hankins. The Bulldogs had to settled for a 20-yard field goal by Jace Christmann after three unsuccessful runs by Fitzgerald.
The Bulldogs threatened on their next possession when Fitzgerald hit Osirus Mitchell for 34 yards to the Iowa 31. MSU moved into the red zone on two rushes by Kylin Hill, but Gervase was in the right spot to catch the pass Guidry couldn’t to deny the Bulldogs.
Iowa went 50 yards over six plays with 42 coming on back-to-back completions to T.J. Hockenson. Miguel Recinos’ 40-yard field goal accounted for the final margin with 5 minutes, 51 seconds remaining.
The Hawkeyes led 17-6 at halftime before MSU scored twice in a span of 18 seconds in the third quarter to take a 19-17 lead. Both touchdowns came off turnovers.
The missed opportunities for MSU capped a season that saw defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, Abram, and offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins earn All-America honors. MSU’s defense was second nationally in yards per play allowed and led the nation with 12 touchdowns allowed. But struggles on offense played big roles in losses to Florida and LSU. The same woes were present in losses to Kentucky and Alabama and against Iowa.
Many of MSU’s prominent defenders saw their college careers end in the Outback Bowl. Returning offensive weapons will be tasked with breaking in a new starting quarterback and helping pick up the slack for a defense that will have plenty of players in new or bigger roles.
“It starts tomorrow. It starts today actually,” sophomore linebacker Willie Gay Jr. said. “Sticking together as a team, replacing the leaders we had in Jeffery, (defensive end) Gerri (Green), Fitz, all those guys, (Sweat). They’re big shoes to fill, and we have to step up.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson